Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Digital Signage Need to Know: Creating Lifetime Fans

- Mike Prongue

Money, money, money, net operating profit, return on investment- how to get it, how to make more of it. That’s what business is all about- right? And, the LED sign industry is a prime opportunity to do just that- make money. There is a need for a cost effective way to advertise on premises, there are great product and software solutions available and you, the LED sign dealer, can marry supply with demand and make a boatload of money.

There are two schools of thought on how a business should become successful-

  • A quantitative approach to tightly managing costs and expenses, tracking every nickel, working those MS- Excel spreadsheets and the budgets, or,
  • Taking care of the customer and bonding them to your business as a lifetime fan.

The truth is you need to blend these two approaches- watch the numbers closely and take care of customers. Flexibility is the key when making decisions translating the numbers into policies and business decisions that impact the customer. Lose the word “never” and take care of the customer. For example- “we never refund purchases beyond the stated one year timeframe.” 

Each potential exception to a policy needs to be evaluated based on the financial consequences, long term. So you don’t refund a service call charge of $500 because it’s 30 days past the stated warranty period? Why should you fork over $500, you told them the rule and your one year warranty is more than fair? Why, because the customer has choices and refusing to lose a nickel today, can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next 30 years.

Creating lifetime fans will help your business by having a devoted group of followers, great word of mouth advertising, and a lot of friends rather than just strangers who are marginally appreciative of your hard work and business efforts.

If you think you have what it takes to deliver truly extraordinary customer service, these four steps will help you get there:

1. See the world with “customer eyes”

Many customers, if not most customers, are skeptical and really do not expect anything extraordinary from your company. They just don’t want to be ripped off- they do expect some service but they really are not hoping much beyond what's on the sales contract.

When Circuit City opened their Louisiana stores, in the 1990s, many customers in the New Orleans market simply could not comprehend being able to return an electronics purchase if they didn’t like it. It took many months for the customer base to really believe that such a “liberal” policy (for its time) could even be possible! The customers in that market had been subject to such anti-customer policies for so long they saw retailers as their enemy. Creating a “Wow” moment for people with such low expectations was fun and easy.

Remember that most customers are hopeful, but they also have had so many marginal purchasing experiences over the years that they may be skeptical. Whether the issue is a great 5-yr on-site service warranty for their LED sign, they hear you but they may not really think it’s real.

Credibility must be established and maintained. And customers are looking for the “catch” or for you to reverse what you stood for when the going gets rough and an exception must be made. Consistency is important.

2. Defer today's profits until tomorrow

A true customer-centric business will see increased revenue and profits long-term. That doesn’t mean you have to squeeze every dime today until 12 pennies are created. There is tomorrow and sometimes extending world-class customer service will cost more in the short run than you may like. But, if you continue to execute the plan, keeping the customer in mind, you’ll see a larger financial return down the road.

If the bean counters, the accountants, in your organization crack open their MS-Excel spreadsheets and start doing a cost versus benefits analysis of your customer service programs they will short-circuit your efforts. It is hard to account for long-term customer loyalty with today’s numbers.

Creating lifetime fans of your business is not always about today, but rather tomorrow. Like any good gardener, you have to plant the seed, tend to it, and WAIT to watch it grow.

3. Be original and surprising

How much easier is it to follow than to lead? What keeps people from leading boldly? Fear is one reason. Sometimes its fear of being original and allowing their true selves to create uniqueness and surprises in the customer service offering. 

Returning to the retail example of Circuit City Stores, one bold move that dramatically increased revenue and improved customer service happened when a program was implemented that offered “Same day car stereo installation or it’s free.” The program was hated in the stores at first because it put pressure on the local installation team to increase their productivity or work for free. A bold plan in retrospect, but once implemented it improved customer service. Right away the 2-3 day backlogs for electronics installation went away and almost every store was on “same day” installation with almost no free installs, anywhere. Customers no longer had to wait up to a week in some places, for their car stereo installation to be installed and the customers thought it was fantastic!

There’s nothing wrong with “stepping out there” with a leading offer or testing a surprising new idea. 

Many companies fail to do this because they stay in a “safety and comfort” zone. It’s nice and warm in the zone and you probably won’t take much criticism. But if you can differentiate your business from the other Sign Companies in your area then you become a leader. If you are not a leader in your region, then what are you? There are leaders, and there are…?

Do something unique and surprising and see what kind of response you get.

4. Create a culture of customer service

Whenever articles are written about customer service Nordstrom’s is always used as an example where a culture of customer service was created. You could return anything to them and they’d take it back while their customer interactions on the floor also embraced the spirit of always “saying yes.”

There are many ways to create a culture of customer service. A culture is not a month-long program giving away glass alligator ashtrays to everyone walking in the door! It is a long-term commitment and a way of life.

A culture starts with the leaders and is something that is turned into a way of simply doing business, a habit. Decisions are made that support the customer. Respect is given to the customer.

Much negativity is infused into organizations by internal negative dialogue about the customer in meetings and one-offs. Trying to stop this frustrated “joking” and putting the external customer (the ones who buy stuff) at the same level of respect as the internal customer (staff) is a must.
You need to spend time living in your customer’s world- feel their emotions, their worries, their concerns, their joy, their frustration. Talk to them, survey them… get information in whatever way you choose. Then do something to improve the experience!

Once the customer condition is identified, everyone has to get into the boat and proverbially “row in the same direction” to improve customer service. From the way phone calls are answered, to empowering the associate to fix customer issues, there are hundreds of ways to stand out in the customer service arena of your business.

It is the responsibility of sign shops to surprise, astound, delight and “wow” every customer they encounter, every day they are in business. When this happens, all of the bean counting could stop, all of the MS Excel spreadsheets could be burned and you’d still be successful.

I am realistic and I know that those spreadsheets are not going away, but you have to decide if you want customer service to be the dog that wags the tail of profits. Or, do you want a profit margin goal to be that dog that makes that profit tail work?

Smart money goes to customer service. Try it… you’ll find it to be much easier and more fun!

These comments are my personal perspective and do not reflect the opinion of Vantage LED, Inc. or SignVine, Inc. or any other person or organization. If you have constructive feedback please email me at  - Mike Prongue

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